For Your Reading Pleasure: A Personal Essay

So I wrote a personal essay this week.  Here it is, a little long for a blog post, so I won't be offended if you skim it over.  :)  I added some photos to make it more interesting.  Enjoy.

Together:  A Hike
      I got out of my car, hurried, I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on this lunch date.  But I was really hungry, and I wanted to meet this guy.  As I shut my car door, I saw him standing in the parking lot, tall and stoic.  He looked handsome.  I waved.  My heart feels a little smack, like it should wake up!  But I am too hungry to notice.  We say a brief hello and find our way to the patio. I go to sit, but Matt is already there pulling the black iron chair away from the table.  I am not too eager to believe that this gesture means anything significant.  After all, I can take care of myself.  Beyond the patio is the Boise river and the greenbelt that follows it throughout the city.  People walk by on their lunch breaks enjoying the stretch of paved pathway.  I haven’t eaten breakfast yet.  With my stomach calling all of the shots, I order a beer and a salad.  

     Here we are, finally on our first real date.  Matt hasn’t said a word yet except to order his own drink.  We wait for our food.  I look at him, try to coax a conversation from his mouth.  Finally the food comes and I am relieved to give the food the challenge of engaging Matt.  I focus on my food, cutting the lettuce with my knife, my fork holding things in place, my chair solid beneath me.  I decide that Matt and I aren’t very compatible, I am already exhausted with trying to get more than a few words at a time from him.  But all of a sudden, a duck saunters over , bold and rightous, at home here at this riverside restaurant.  Just a few feet from our table, I hear a loud bodily sound and watch as the duck releases the foulest amount of duck diarrhea.  It covers a good portion of the patio and smells like rotting sewage.  

     Laughter overcomes me, I jump from my chair’s confines almost knocking it over and sprint to the table farthest from the incident.  I hear Matt laugh behind me, a sound new to me.  He gathers our drinks and my plate.  I look back, and see him smile.  I can’t talk, I can’t eat.  I am too surprised, disgusted and laughing too hard to do anything!  I am crying!  Matt just smiles, watching me struggle through all of these emotions, composure eluding me.  I guess angels come in all shapes, because I knew that duck had just sealed our date.  We know at this moment that this date will not be the last.

     My back pack is carefully packed, each item stored at it’s optimal spot considering weight and easy retrieval.  I always, always take a bandana, pocket knife, and a flashlight and put them in the top pocket of my pack where I can reach them without taking the pack off.  Bandanas are endlessly useful, for dipping in a stream to cool the forehead, as a napkin, or as head covering to keep the part in my hair’s pigtails from being sunburned.  I have on the one pair of pants that I will be wearing for the trip, a pair of light weight zippered hiking pants that can alternatively be converted into shorts.  Other clothes items I carry are a fleece top and bottom for layering during evening temperatures, extra socks, and a rain jacket.  These are all packed tightly inside the main compartment of my pack.  Beneath that I have stored the heavier items, since I know to carry most of my weight on my hips.  Men carry their heavier weight on their shoulders.  My heavy items are the kitchen gear; cook stove, cook fuel, pans, and some food.   And, since I had the kitchen gear, Matt had the tent.  Distributing weight and gear between the two of us was an easy task, hopefully this was some foreshadowing for the rest of our lives; we were setting off on our honeymoon to backpack the Mckenzie River Trail.

     I am sitting in the back of our car, a little two door orange Datsun.  The black pleather bucket seat is familiar beneath me, my seat squished up to the back of the driver’s seat where my Mom sits ready to back the car out of the driveway.  My sister is little sitting next to me.  I hold a small bright lime green rubber cow in my hands.  It is my latest favorite of my eraser collection and I take it everywhere.  The cow is squishy as I gently change its postures; ears down, tail around, feet in a pretend prance. The car purrs the way that cars do when they need a little work, and from my five year old view point, I can see my mom’s curly brown hair framing the head rest of her seat.  She turns around and looks at me, a tired look, maybe she is worried?  She looks more worried as she glances at my sister, I think.  And she starts to explain to me and my little sister about what it means to get a divorce and that Dad won’t be living with us any more.  I don’t know why my sister is crying.  I just sit there, glad there won’t be any more late night fighting.  

     Years later I tag along to a jeweler’s shop with my mom, always desperate for emotional support from me.  She is quiet, there are no words for this experience. I realize that this is how it ends, with some stranger, snips in hand, sitting behind a glass counter holding your hand.  My mom reaches out to the stranger and in one quick clink, her wedding ring sits on the glass counter in front of us.  I wonder if she remembers thirteen years ago, back in our old kitchen, giddy, waiting for that same ring to arrive?

     Parts of the McKenzie River Trail are very rocky.  Matt walked ahead of me, tall, sure of each step, his hatchet strapped securely in the little velcro strap of his pack.  He took the dog’s leash from my hands, happy to relieve me from the tugging.  We climbed stepping up between jagged walls of lava rock and each time my foot became unsteady, there was Matt’s hand thrown easily behind him.  My hand sure in his, my step is steady, somehow I always feel like this with him.  As we come to the summit of this rocky stretch, I feel like Matt’s wife.  He stands looking out over the Tamolitch Pool, called the Blue Hole by locals, and I just watch him stand there, carrying everything that I could ever hope to need in a man.

     Sometimes you have to take a path that seems unlikely, and so it is with this Blue Hole.  Below us, the water sits as perfect and happy, still as a fairy tale lake.  It had found its resting place here, surrounded by the beauty of this old forest, safely cradled in this valley below us.  You should never judge a person by how successful they are now, because you haven’t seen all of the failures it took for them to reach their precipice.  Forced deep underground by six thousand years of ancient basalt flows, the McKenzie river pushes on.  At once finding itself dammed by rock, the river finds another way, an unlikely underwater path.  It flows for a few miles this way traversing dark underground channels through the lava that initially stands in its way.  Finally it raises its head to the world, it becomes this perfect beautiful pool.

     In a small bookstore in Olympia, before I had ever met Matt, I find a tattered copy of The Prophet.  I know the book is for me, there is a small white feather between it’s yellowed pages, hidden well from the shop keeper.  Kahlil Gibran, the well known philosopher,  has told me his truths for many years now, and in marriage he is also wise.
“...For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
     I thought it was appropriate to spend the first week of our marriage isolated together on the trail like that.  We are just us, two people, and the experience.  We have to rely on each other.  We have to trust each other.  We have to be able to stand each other for days at a time, in quietude and without any of the modern distractions daily life provides.  But we each have to be able to carry our own weight too.  This isn’t our first trip, we had been successful backpackers together before.  It was the sentiment that counted to me.  If we can spend four days backpacking together, we can spend the rest of our lives together too.

     Hiking is a relationship sport calling on the body to be alive.  Just as each rhythmic step awakens the body, it can have the same effect on a relationship (Rozday).  From the very beginning, Matt and I would go on walks together, for miles.  We can just walk, hand in hand, content with each other’s company and the scenes floating past us.

     On a different trip, we are in Idaho somewhere, in early April.  We wake from a haggard sleep and decide to hike over a ridge to a mountain lake we see on our topo map.  The map shows us our elevation, and we think gives us a pretty good idea of what lies ahead in jagged little blue lines.  We pack everything up and swing our gear over tired shoulders.  The trail inclines.  Before we know it, we are surrounded by snow and too far from our last stop to turn back.  There is no trail to be seen, it is covered in at least three feet of snow.  We become really good friends with the little rock markers we learn to spot along the way, officially called kairns by saavy hikers.  Every time we see one we yell out, “there she is, it’s Karen!”.  We don’t lash out at each other, we don’t break down in frustration, not even when we see prints from a pack of wolves.  We just trek on, committed, for hours in the deep snow, making jokes and hoping to find “Karen”.

     Marriage isn’t just a pretty couple at the altar, all white lace, and perfect centerpieces.  Marriage is what happens after all of that, a lifetime of togetherness.  And a successful marriage depends on the ability of the couple to overcome adversity.  “Adversity”, the word sounds like some arch nemesis, a foe who will appear when least expected, to tear the marriage to bits.  He is a tricky creature, found in the most trivial of things like, who’s turn it is to do the dishes, a misplaced coffee cup, or in something more pressing, like wolf tracks.  That is why I don’t understand the island honeymoon.  

     An illusion, that kind of honeymoon sets a very idealized precedent for the rest of the marriage, I imagine days spent awash in the smell of orchids and island breezes, time stands still, and fine food and wine lies within easy reach.  Not that I have anything against Hawaii, or Bali, or even Mexico, I’m just more of a realist when it comes to my own marriage. I wanted a souvenir of the heart (Stephens and Gray). 

     The oldest couple ever to get married live in the UK, and as far as I know are still enjoying themselves; Rose at age ninety and her husband Forrest at one hundred.  They dated for twenty five years before they finally tied the knot.  I think sly old Rose knew exactly what she was doing waiting all that time.  She followed her own advice, to “Take your time and get to know one another(Daily Mail Reporter)”.  These days, “couples work hard to enrich their relationship and deepen their intimacy, with a dedication that [is astonishing],” as opposed to the typical marriages of yonder years where couples married for social status and economic gain (Coontz)”.

     The McKenzie river trail runs a little over twenty six miles through the Willamette National Forest; plenty of trail for us to enjoy each other.  It’s early in the morning and we arrive at the trail head.  Matt has picked the location.  We had only been living in Oregon for three months so neither of us were very familiar with the territory.  He found our hike in a going away present from my Dad before we left Idaho, a book on hiking Oregon.  I think we were both hooked on the description of “the blue hole”, a beautiful blue lagoon sitting in the midst of an old growth forest and volcanic rock, a bit of paradise included in our realist’s honeymoon after all.  

     When we arrive at the trail head, the lot is empty except for us and we load up, exchanging our shoes for hiking boots.  It is still cold from last night’s lower temperatures and I pull on an extra layer before hauling my pack onto my shoulders.  We set out into new territory.  We walk across a log bridge that takes us to the other side of the river.  It is a catwalk, only wide enough for one, but it holds us both and the forest is waking up around us, sunlight sifting through sleepy cedars.  We continue along the trail, Matt leads the way, the dog leads him, and the weight of our packs promise adventure.  Almost immediately, Sahalie Falls is upon us, we watch as water flows down, one hundred and twenty feet over giant moss covered lava rocks.  Cold mist tickles my face, the water is a deep dark green and I hold onto a solid log pole railing, but I find the most security in Matt’s solid frame anchored securely beside me.  The enormity of the fall makes me feel dizzy.

     Today I am here in our home, the dogs play outside, their familiar barks and chirps sound like home.  The newest addition, only eleven weeks old, tackles the older dog instigating more play.  Today the sky couldn’t be more clear, teasing winter away with promises of spring. Morning sun shines through the window, and I realize, it has been exactly a year since Matt asked me to marry him.  
     I can’t think straight.  We are sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boise.  Suddenly, without warning I am wearing a stunning sparkling ring on my finger.  That thing, the “M word” was beginning.  Marriage.  We had just returned from a plane ride in a tiny Cessna.  Matt is just full of surprises today, it seems.  The floating feeling of flying is still fresh in my chest, the altitude of the flight and images of our tiny distant city replay themselves in my mind.  The waitress is back for my order, the low lighting hides the multitude of emotions I feel overcoming every part of me.  I have no idea what I want to eat.  Eating seems so silly!  Somehow I manage enough words to shoo her away, and the waitress leaves me with Matt.  He just watches me, his mouth hints a confident smile.  I look at him, I look at my hand.  There is no one else on the entire planet at this moment.  Just me.  Just him.  

     Idaho holds some secrets that only the locals know.  Growing up here, Matt knew just where to take me.  The water’s heat seeps into my bones, I feel steam on my face, the winter breeze teases me with it’s stark cold contrast, and all around me are trees, snow, jagged rock, and mountain sky.  Matt reaches over and turns the lever to slow the cool water and then turns the other to release the hot water, always monitoring the temperature, keeping it just right for me.  The primitive PVC pipes are impressively modern in this rustic little spot.  I find hard to imagine the sweat it must have taken to install the hundreds of feet of plastic piping that controls the water flow into our pool.  Who were they, the people who decided to harness this spring, working for nothing but the pleasure of what they were to create?  The day begins to ease the misty morning away, and sunlight escapes from the fog.  Our clothes lie a few feet away, a pile of winter boots, hats, and sweaters but our bodies are warm, immersed in the natural hot spring.  I remember the signs on the way up, “ Beware of the Bare,” the tamers of this natural hot spring left their mark.  Matt hands me a coconut water from our picnic lunch which he had prepared and begins slicing apples and cheese for us to eat.  This perfect moment, I realize as I watch him, he created  just for me.  I sit with him quietly, drinking in the moment.

     My feet, finally released from the confines of my boots, I lay back on the picnic table beneath me, my head rests on my pack.  The McKenzie river trail has worn us out completely.  Matt is off looking for the campground hosts so we can set up camp for the night.  Maple leaves shift above me, a kaleidoscope, letting in sunlight and whispering to the blue sky beyond.  My whole body feels an exhaustion that only backpacking can bring.  I can still feel the straps on my shoulders, my feet pound, the trail still fresh in my muscles.  I close my eyes.  I am his wife.  And just as I feel myself drift off, I hear his familiar footsteps.  We beg our bodies to unpack the tent, sleeping pads, bags.  Even though it is only afternoon, once inside the tent, I am asleep in a cocoon, wrapped up in my husband’s arms.  And the trail ahead, our life?  We will hike it together, at each turn, our map is each other.

Coontz, Stephanie.  Marriage, A History.  New York:  The Penguin Group, 2005.  Print.
Daily Mail Reporter.  “World's oldest newlyweds give marriage tips... and reveal secret to longevity is wine, whiskey and fried food.”  Mail Online.  5 May.  2011.  Web.  21 Feb. 2012.
Gibran, Kahlil.  The Prophet.  New York:  Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1972.  Print.
Gray, John, Phd.  Venus on Fire Mars on Ice.  British Columbia:  Mind Publishing, 2010.  Print.
Stafford, Kim.  Having Everything Right.  Seattle:  Sasquatch Books, 1997.  Print.
Stephens, Steve and Alice Gray.  The Walk Out Woman.  Sisters, Oregon:  Multnomah Publishers, 2004.  Print.
Rozday, Bill.  “Seven Reasons to go on a Hike With You Spouse”.  Hitched.  2012.  Web.  21 Feb. 2012.

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